By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) The early returns are solid for the Jason Heyward batting reclamation project, with the 27-year-old Cubs outfielder working over the offseason to fix a swing that resulted in a miserable 2016 slash-line of .230/.306/.325 and a wOBA of just .282.
One-eighth of the way into 2017, both his set-up and swing timing appear better, and the numbers reflect it. He’s now batting .294, on base at a .342 clip and slugging .456, with a wOBA of .347. Compare those to his career rates of .263/.346/.415 and .335, and, in short, Jason Heyward right now looks like a slightly better version of Jason Heyward.
Cubs coaches have long thought there was more power to be mined from his impressive frame, but last year’s setback delayed efforts to tinker with his balance and launch angle to keep his weight back and allow him to drive more balls in the air. His three home runs already suggest that may be happening as a by-product of the winter efforts in Arizona. As long as the Cubs were doing a full rebuild, they might as well have aimed high, in this case literally.
And now we don’t have to play the old guessing games of how the ball looks or sounds when he hits it to see if they’re succeeding, because the cameras measuring the vectors do the work for us. Per the latest information at MLB’s Statcast.com, Heyward is in fact the Cubs’ current leader in average exit velocity at 91.8 mph, ranking 28th in all of baseball, just behind Bryce Harper’s 91.9.
A check of BABIP shows how harder-hit balls are more likely to be hits, with that number at .333 instead of last year’s .266. Even as it normalizes toward his career .303 mark, it stands to remain higher as he continues to square up pitches on the barrel of the bat, as it was in his best offensive seasons.
His defense, baserunning and leadership have always elevated his value and will continue to do so, but a return to offensive form for Heyward is some of the best possible news for a Cubs team that committed to maximizing untapped talent.
He may grab fans’ extra attention due to his eight-year contract that will pay him $184 million, but he was already a contributor to a World Series champion. It also now looks like that commitment could be fulfilled by his offensive component just being good, especially as salaries inflate every year. Check the average value for a Win Above Replacement in, say, 2020, and we’ll see what we thought expensive looked like.
Jason Heyward just has to be fine, and the first weeks of evidence tell us that looks like a good bet.